When I travel long term I have a tendency not to make a lot of hotel reservations. For example, for this six month journey, with the exception of the Safari I have booked in Africa, I have made reservations for six nights.
I always make a reservation for the very first night and perhaps even the second night, especially when traveling to Asia, because the flight is long and tiring and in most cases you arrive late in the evening. The last thing I want to do after traveling 36 hours is drag my luggage around town looking at various hotels. After the first two nights, however, I leave my schedule open and rely on the advice of people I meet along the way, or I look at other hotels as I travel around. It is commonplace to walk into a hotel in Asia and ask to see their rooms.
Bangkok was one of the places where I made reservations for the first two nights. I’ve been here twice before and sort of know the lay of the land. Previously I have stayed in the embassy section of the city along Sukhumvit Road, since it has easy access to the Sky Train, making it quite simple to get anywhere in the city. Rooms in this area are in the $50-60 range in moderate hotels. On this trip, however, one of my goals was to limit my budget to $25 per night to prove that travel does not have to be terribly expensive, so I decided to find a room at one of the budget hotels in Bangkok in the backpacker district along Khao San Road. After much research on the Internet I settled on the New Siam II Hotel. The photos on their website looked pretty good – nice pool, seemingly nice rooms – and the price was right at $25 per night, so I booked it.
I arrived in Bangkok around 8 PM last night and by the time I arrived at the hotel it was 9:30 PM. If you have never been to Bangkok – especially the backpacker district – the sight of this area might send you screaming for cover. My taxi driver wound through narrow, dirty streets, crammed with zillions of shops, bars and restaurants, in search of my hotel (fortunately I had brought along a map with directions in Thai). The closer we got to Khao San Road, the stronger the smell that assaulted my nostrils – I had forgotten about the smell in this part of the city. It is perhaps best described as a mixture of sewage, rotting food, urine, body odor, and the occasional whiff of polluted water from the adjacent Chao Phraya River. (Frankly, I can’t say much about the body odor, since I pretty much stink at this point. My sandals are disgustingly smelly and the Asian spices I have been eating are oozing out of my pores.) Just when I thought the neighborhood couldn’t get any worse, my driver pulled over to the side of the road and motioned for me to get out. He pointed down a dark alley, then up at a sign that said New Siam II. Okayyyyyy…..I thought……this looks interesting. I rolled my suitcase down half a block of jagged cobblestones and was very relieved to find that the New Siam was, indeed at the end of the dead-end alley.
I have discovered that there are $25 rooms and then there are $25 rooms. I have also had to admit that my tolerance for crappy, disgusting hotels has a limit. I had no problem with the $13 room in Vietnam, or the $22 rooms in Bali, but I must say that the New Siam II was totally beyond my acceptance level. Everywhere I looked, handwritten signs were posted, warning that 1) bringing prostitutes into the hotel is illegal, 2) no local Thai people are allowed in the hotel, 3) no room service or cleaning will be performed during the stay unless the guest calls and requests cleaning, and then the guest is responsible for locking up all valuables. I checked in and had to pay a $200 Baht refundable fee for the room key. I was beginning to think this place was a bit dicey.
A hotel employee escorted me to my room and, as we stepped into the elevator, I read yet another sign explaining that the elevator is very sensitive and warning people not to overload it or block the door. The room itself was small but the bathroom was so tiny that I could barely turn around in it. The only saving grace was the room safe, into which I immediately placed my passport, airline tickets, wallet, iPod, and laptop. A short while later I went to the window to make sure it was locked – this is something I do no matter where I am, even in the US. Hiding behind the drapes were yet another two signs – one on each side of the sliding windows – warning occupants to keep the windows locked at all times to guard against thieves. Of course, both of my windows were unlocked and the locks were broken. I called the front desk and asked for maintenance to repair the locks. Half an hour later the maintenance person had gotten the windows to lock, sort of. But they were so loose that one good shove would have easily forced them open, so I pressed the point. I refused to stay in the room unless the windows could be made to lock fast. They sent yet another man and, finally, got the windows to lock securely. I was wrong about this place being a bit dicey – it’s a LOT dicey.
This morning I hopped in the shower, which consisted of a curtain hung on a semi-circular rod in the corner of the tiny bathroom, and a hand-held sprayer mounted on the wall. I turned on the water and reached up to adjust the sprayer. The moment I touched it, the plastic bracket holding the sprayer broke in two. Water sprayed in every direction before I was able to retrieve the hose from the floor. I finished my shower, juggling the soap in one hand and sprayer in the other.
By now it was time to have some breakfast and get my email – one of the things I had made sure of before booking the room was that the hotel had Internet service and I had, indeed spotted a room with a bank of computers last night. I inquired about plugging in my laptop but they had no idea if this could be done, so I settled for using one of their six computers. Unfortunately, only one of the computers works. All the rest have – you guessed it – signs on them, saying “broken,” followed by a date. In all cases, these computers were “broken” back in 2006 and have just been left sitting in place. Fortunately, no one was using the one working computer, so I hopped on it. No sooner had I started than people started coming into the room asking me how long I would be. It made me feel so guilty that I cut my time short, but not before I identified a number of alternative hotels nearby.
Following breakfast I checked out three places along Rambuttri Road (next to Khao San Road) with no luck. Either they were not up to my standards or they had no rooms available. Along the way I encountered homeless people – one man in particular was passed out on the sidewalk, his feet black with dirt and his privates hanging out of his shorts. Another man stood over him, nudging him with his foot and berating the guy in Thai. I assume he was trying to get the guy to cover himself up, since Thais frown on public displays of nudity. Finally I crossed a major highway and found a hotel that suits me – the Royal Hotel. The room is spacious, the bathroom is quite large (even has a bathtub), and they have a nice pool and restaurant. The cost is $30 per night, including breakfast, which was NOT included at the New Siam II. I grabbed a taxi back to New Siam to retrieve my luggage, check out, and fight the battle over a refund for my prepaid night tonight. The taxi driver tried to rip me off, as usual, first trying to go the wrong direction to jack up the fare (I told him in no uncertain terms that I knew we were going the wrong way), then trying charge me triple the amount on the meter, and finally claiming not to have change for my $100 Baht bill. I stood my ground and only paid him $40 Baht. I also won the battle of the refund at New Siam.
The only thing remaining was to get my luggage over to the Royal Hotel and check in. I tried to hire a taxi, but no one wanted the small fare, so I resorted to a Tuk Tuk, those three wheel, open-air affairs that scurry about town belching diesel fumes. The best I could negotiate was $50 Baht because the one-way streets made the trip back to the Royal considerably longer than the trip over. I hopped in for the ear-splitting ride (Tuk Tuks are named so for a very good reason – their engines make a racket that sounds something like Tuk-Tuk-Tuk-Tuk), glad to see he was taking me in the correct direction. About two blocks from the Royal Hotel he pulled over and ground to a stop. “You go – not so far,” he said. I told him to take me all the way to the front door, which was still two blocks away. “Gas finish,” he answered. Good God. So out I go, onto the street with my backpack, my bottle of water, and my rolling suitcase, past yet more homeless people lying on the sidewalk and one man, semi-hidden behind a poster at the entrance of the hotel, who had pulled his pants down around his ankles and squatted down to – how shall I say this delicately – empty his bowels. I promise you I am not making any of this up. And so if you have not yet given thanks today for everything that you have, now would be a good time to do so – I just did!